Crucial for Lebanese to interact with Arab neighbors, says Pope Francis

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati meets Pope Francis at the Vatican, November 25, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 November 2021

Crucial for Lebanese to interact with Arab neighbors, says Pope Francis

  • Vatican keen on maintaining Lebanon’s stability and stopping emigration
  • Families of Beirut port blast victims: Army was aware of stored ammonium nitrate risk

BEIRUT: Pope Francis has called on “all the Lebanese to cooperate to save their country so that it can restore its role as a model for dialogue and convergence between East and West.”

The pope on Thursday received Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who visited to seek guidance from the Vatican in light of the difficulties Lebanon is facing.

Mikati quoted the pope as stressing “how crucial the Lebanese’s role and interaction with their Arab environment are to keeping Lebanon a pioneering, unique country.”

He said that Pope Francis told him that he “will make the necessary efforts in all international forums to help Lebanon pass this difficult stage and restore peace and stability.”

Mikati said: “We both agreed on the importance of activating Islamic-Christian relations.”

The prime minister is counting on the pope’s ability to promote the Lebanese cause with other countries.

“In these difficult times, we are in dire need of the support of our friends,” Mikati said following the meeting.

He added: “The more Christians in Lebanon feel safe, the more this will be reflected on all Christians in the East. I am confident that the Holy See can play a great role in this respect.”

Mikati said Christians in the East “have been among the pillars of freedoms, human rights and freedom of belief, and have always found a haven in Lebanon.”

Mikati also met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

“Lebanon is essential to the Christian presence in the East, and it has always been an example to the world about how societies can coexist,” Mikati’s media office quoted Parolin as saying.

He continued: “Lebanon receives special attention from the Holy See.

“Any credible government ought to secure the country’s obligations, especially with the international community.”

Parolin expressed concerns about the economic and social situation in Lebanon.

“The Vatican will make efforts to support Lebanon in international forums,” he said, stressing “the need for Lebanon to maintain the best relations with its Arab surroundings and the international community.”

Following the meetings, Mikati said he detailed “the government’s plans to address the challenges facing Lebanon,” to Vatican officials.

Mikati said he felt that the pope was pleased with the efforts “we are making in maintaining security and stability in Lebanon, addressing the enormous difficulties facing the country, and continuing to adhere to the national choices upon which the Lebanese unanimously agree, as well as strengthening relations between Lebanon and the world.”

The prime minister added that that Pope Francis “is fully aware of the Lebanese situation and the prevailing conditions, and stressed the need for everyone to cooperate to preserve the Lebanese message and stop the massive emigration from all sects.”

Lebanon is currently attracting broad international attention, with influential countries monitoring the behavior of the Lebanese forces on constitutional requirements, the first of which are the parliamentary elections.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to visit Lebanon in December. The Vatican’s Foreign Minister Paul Gallagher is also expected to visit in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, there have been developments in one of the crises that has attracted global attention. The families of the victims of the Beirut port explosion made significant accusations as they held a sit-in at the Palace of Justice in Beirut in solidarity with Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the blast probe.

William Noun, brother of explosion victim Joe Noun, said: “Documents revealed that on July 20, 2020, i.e. two weeks before the explosion, the Lebanese army was informed of the dangerous quantities of ammonium nitrate that were stored at the port.”

Noun claimed that the army “knew, just like the president, the prime minister and the public prosecutor, all of whom have fallen short in their duties.”

Noun named an army general, saying that he “continues to provide false information for the investigation and the judiciary.”

On Thursday, the General Authority of the Court of Cassation rejected lawsuits to dismiss Bitar filed by a group of politicians accused of being involved in the port explosion.

While there are no internal political solutions for the Cabinet impasse and the crisis with the Gulf, Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh Al-Shami announced on Thursday that the technical negotiations with the International Monetary Fund were almost over.

Al-Shami said: “We have entered the negotiation stage on monetary and economic policies to start negotiations in earnest with the IMF team, which we hope will visit Lebanon soon.”

He said: “Every minister is working on the files within their jurisdiction, provided that the government's plan is announced as soon as it is completed,” stressing that the Cabinet needs to convene to approve the plan.

“Our goal is still to reach a preliminary agreement before the end of the year, after which we can reach a final agreement in January 2022,” Al-Shami said, adding: “We also need to address the exchange rate, monetary policy, and the banking and financial sector, and we are preparing a vision for how to solve this issue, which we will announce upon completion.”

Speaking about the impact of the parliamentary elections on the negotiations with the IMF, he noted: “The IMF will not associate any issue to the elections, but they can sometimes affect the negotiations.”

Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal

Updated 7 sec ago

Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Iran is firmly determined to reach an agreement with major powers on salvaging its 2015 nuclear deal at talks that resume Monday in Vienna, its foreign ministry spokesman said.
“The delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in Vienna with a firm determination to reach an agreement and is looking forward to fruitful talks,” Said Khatibzadeh told reporters.
“The government has shown its willingness and seriousness by sending a quality team known to all. If the other side shows the same willingness, we will be on the right track to reach an agreement.”
The landmark 2015 agreement offered a lifting of some of the array of economic sanctions Iran had been under, in return for strict curbs on its nuclear program.
But the deal began falling apart in 2018 when then US president Donald Trump pulled out and began reinstating sanctions.
The following year, Iran retaliated by starting to exceed the limits on its nuclear activity laid down in the deal.
Since the last Vienna talks were paused in June, the ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi has taken over, and his new government for several months ignored appeals to restart the talks.
According to local media, the Iranian delegation now in Vienna, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri, has been greatly expanded for the new round of negotiations.
“If the United States comes to Vienna with the determination to break the deadlock and overcome the problems on which we did not agree in previous rounds, the path of dialogue will certainly be easier,” said Khatibzadeh.
Khatibzadeh signalled Iran’s distrust of longtime foe the United States.
“We are looking for practical verification of the implementation of American commitments under the nuclear agreement,” he said, adding that was one of their “main focuses in continuing the talks.”
Talks are to resume between Iran and the other parties Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, while the United States is set to participate indirectly.
“With serious will, real determination and good faith, we hope to be able to take steps to reach an agreement as soon as possible to lift the sanctions, provided that the other parties come to Vienna with a change of approach,” said Khatibzadeh.
“If that happens, the results can be announced quickly.”
Iran has in recent months restricted the activities of inspectors from UN watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Its head Rafael Grossi visited Tehran last week, but said on his return that “no progress” had been made on the issues he raised.
Khatibzadeh, asked about the visit, said: “Good talks took place at different levels. These talks remained unfinished because we did not reach agreement on some words and concepts that are important to both sides, but the terms of the agreement were almost finalized.”
He added that the Iranian delegation would have meetings with the Vienna-based IAEA in coming days “regarding the finalization of the text” and that “relations between the two sides will continue at different levels.”
The Iranian spokesman also criticized Britain after its Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pledged in a newspaper article co-written with Israel’s Yair Lapid to work “night and day” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
“You will find that at least some European countries are not coming to Vienna with the necessary will to lift sanctions,” Khatibzadeh said.
“This shows that not only are some of these countries not serious, but they want to prolong the talks and delay the lifting of sanctions.”

Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis

Updated 25 min 46 sec ago

Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis

  • Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Beirut and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave last month following televised comments by Lebanon’s information minister
  • Aoun’s visit came as scores of protesters blocked major roads in Lebanon Monday to express anger against the country’s political class

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president arrived in Qatar Monday for the opening ceremony of an Arab soccer tournament amid — and for talks on an precedented diplomatic crisis between Beirut and oil-rich Gulf nations.
President Michel Aoun’s face-to-face meetings with the emir of Qatar and other Qatari officials come as Lebanon is sinks deeper into its economic crisis, the worst in its modern history. The country’s financial meltdown, coupled with multiple other crises, has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of six million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
Aoun is expected to discuss the tense relations between Lebanon and gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia during his meetings in Doha. Aoun has repeatedly said that Lebanon wants excellent relations with Saudi Arabia, which lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Aoun is a political ally of the Shiite militant group.
Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Beirut and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave last month following televised comments by George Kordahi, Lebanon’s information minister. Kordahi said the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen’s war began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthi rebels, who control much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war the following year, determined to restore the internationally recognized government and oust the rebels.
Aoun told Qatar’s Al-Raya daily that in face-to-face meetings, he will call on the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to invest in the reconstruction of Beirut’s port that was destroyed last year in a massive blast. Aoun also said he would seek an investment in other infrastructure projects, including electricity, that is cut for much of the day in Lebanon.
Qatar has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and had been a major investor in Lebanon in the past.
However many countries have refused to invest in Lebanon or offer assistance to its government before it implements major reforms to fight the corruption and mismanagement that sparked the economic meltdown in 2019.
On Tuesday, Aoun will attend the opening ceremony of the FIFA Arab Cup in which 16 teams will compete. The 19-day tournament is an opportunity for the world to witness Qatar’s new stadiums that will host the World Cup next year.
Aoun’s visit came as scores of protesters blocked major roads in Lebanon Monday to express anger against the country’s political class for the worsening economic crisis and harsh living conditions.
The road closures with burning tires were mainly in the capital Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli, the southern port city of Sidon and the eastern Bekaa valley.
Lebanon’s economic crisis deteriorated in recent weeks with the Lebanese pound hitting new lows of 25,800 to the US dollar eradicating purchase power of most the country’s residents who get paid in pounds. The minimum monthly wage is 675,000 pounds or ($27).


UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons

Updated 29 November 2021

UK, Israel to work together to stop Iran gaining nuclear weapons

Britain and Israel will “work night and day” in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the foreign ministers of the two countries wrote in a joint article.
“The clock is ticking, which heightens the need for close cooperation with our partners and friends to thwart Tehran’s ambitions,” the UK’s Liz Truss and her Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid wrote in the Telegraph newspaper on Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said earlier in the day that his country was “very worried” that world powers will remove sanctions on Iran in exchange for insufficient caps on its nuclear program, as negotiators convene in Vienna on Monday in a last-ditch effort to salvage a nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, Israel and Britain will sign a 10-year agreement on Monday to work closely on areas such as cybersecurity, technology, trade and defense, according to the Telegraph.
The foreign ministers added in the article that Israel will officially become Britain’s “tier one” cyber partner, in a bid to improve its cyber defenses as countries around the world face increased threats.

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground

Updated 28 November 2021

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the ground

  • Diplomats: Tehran simply playing for time to accumulate more material and know-how

PARIS: World powers and Iran return to Vienna on Monday in a last ditch effort to salvage the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but few expect a breakthrough as Tehran’s atomic activities rumble on in an apparent bid to gain leverage against the West.
The US will also send a delegation, headed by Washington’s Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley, to participate in the talks indirectly.
Israel worries Iran will secure sanctions relief in renewed nuclear negotiations with world powers, but will not sufficiently roll back projects with bomb making potential, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
“Israel is very worried about the readiness to remove the sanctions and to allow a flow of billions (of dollars) to Iran in exchange for unsatisfactory restrictions in the nuclear realm,” Bennett told his Cabinet in televised remarks.
“This is the message that we are relaying in every manner, whether to the Americans or to the other countries negotiating with Iran.”
Few expect a breakthrough in the talks as Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have escalated in an apparent bid to gain leverage.
Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal, which former US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other world powers involved.
Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June.
The latest round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Tehran’s negotiating team has set out demands that US and European diplomats consider unrealistic.
Two European diplomats said it seemed Iran was simply playing for time to accumulate more material and know-how.
Western diplomats say they will head to Monday’s talks on the premise that they resume where they left off in June, and have warned that if Iran continues with its maximalist positions and fails to restore its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, then they will review their options.
Iran’s top negotiator and foreign minister both repeated on Friday that the full lifting of sanctions would be the only thing on the table in Vienna.
“If this is the position that Iran continues to hold on Monday, then I don’t see a negotiated solution,” said one European diplomat.
Iran has pressed ahead with its uranium enrichment program and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to re-install monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.
“They are doing enough technically so they can change their basic relationship with the West to be able to have a more equal dialogue in the future,” said a Western diplomat involved in the talks.
Several diplomats said Iran was now between four to six weeks away from the “breakout time” it needs to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, although they cautioned it was still about two years from being able to weaponize it.
Should the talks collapse, the likelihood is the US and its allies will initially confront Iran at the IAEA next month by calling for an emergency meeting.

Sudan’s Burhan dismisses senior intelligence officers: Sources

Updated 28 November 2021

Sudan’s Burhan dismisses senior intelligence officers: Sources

  • The decision by Al-Burhan comes a week after he struck a deal to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok
  • He also mets with EU envoy for the Horn of Africa to discuss transitional process, elections

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s military leader has overhauled top intelligence positions, dismissing at least eight general intelligence officers and replacing the head of military intelligence, two official sources told Reuters on Sunday.
The decision by Sovereign Council head Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan comes a week after he struck a deal to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who had been placed under house arrest in an Oct. 25 coup.
Of the officers dismissed, five were in senior positions and had been in place since before the 2019 overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Omar Al-Bashir, the sources said. On Saturday, official sources said Al-Burhan had replaced the head of the general intelligence service.
It was not immediately clear what impact the decisions could have on the balance of power following Hamdok’s return. Hamdok replaced the country’s top two police officials on Saturday, following deadly violence against anti-military protesters in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Al-Burhan held talks with EU envoy for the Horn of Africa Annette Weber to discuss the need to complete the structures of the transitional authority, including the formation of the transitional legislative council, especially those related to the election process.
During the meeting, Al-Burhan “pledged to protect the transitional period until free and fair elections are held,” and stressed his support for the government that will be formed by Hamdok to perform its national tasks, satae news agency SUNA reported.
Weber affirmed the EU’s continued support for the political transition process in Sudan in order to hold the elections, especially in the logistical and technical aspects. She said “Sudan is an important country for the security of the region and the Red Sea.”
Before the coup, the military had been sharing power with civilian groups that took part in an uprising against Bashir. Many within those groups have opposed the deal between Al-Burhan and Hamdok, saying they want the army to exit politics.
One condition of the deal was that political prisoners arrested since the coup should be freed. Some have been released but others remain in detention.
The US, Britain and Norway, which lead Western foreign policy on Sudan, called for the release of all those imprisoned for their political beliefs across Sudan.
“These are necessary steps to rebuild trust and return Sudan to the path of freedom and democracy,” they said in a statement.
(With Reuters)